This Writer Works As A Janitor At The University That Just Awarded Her A Literary Prize

Photo by Eoin Rafferty

Caitriona Lally describes her debut novel as “all but forgotten.” But that novel, Eggshells — the recent winner of the prestigious Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, awarded by Trinity College — is all but forgotten no more. First published in the United States in 2017, Eggshells is not only back in print but rising through the ranks of Amazon as it wins over American readers with its tale of an offbeat and quirky woman named Vivian who is searching for a best friend.

Trinity College, the university that awarded the prize, is extremely familiar to Lally, because it's there that she works as a janitor.

“It’s an early morning job which is perfect for my writing,” Lally tells me of her housekeeping position at Trinity. The writer first worked for the college’s Housekeeping Department while enrolled as an English Literature student, and returned 15 years later.

But despite her long connection to Trinity, she never considered herself a candidate for the Rooney Prize. “Winning the Rooney Prize was so big a dream I didn’t even know to dream it,” Lally says. “My novel, Eggshells, had been published three years ago and had fallen out of print in Ireland. I was losing confidence in the second novel, which I’d dragged out for years, and so hearing I’d won, when I didn’t even know I was in the running, was just massive.”

Eggshells by Caitriona Lally, $11.91, Amazon or Indiebound

The Rooney Prize, which honors emerging Irish writers under the age of 40 and includes a €10,000 (about $11,300) award, not only gave Lally the confidence boost she needed regarding Eggshells, it also jump started her second novel. “It gave me a huge confidence boost and sent me back to the second novel with a spring in my step,” Lally says, of winning. “I’ve got to the stage of almost completing the second novel.”

For lovers of Irish literature, Eggshells is a must-read. It follows the story of the socially awkward and other-worldly Vivian, who roams Dublin looking for portals into a better world and places an ad for a friend — one who must be named Penelope. “I suppose I liked the idea of transplanting Irish mythology, which is usually played out in traditional rural settings, onto a modern contemporary urban setting,” says Lally. “I deliberately wanted to take the fairies out of the countryside and into the city. Eggshells is based in reality, an unpolished urban reality, but the protagonist, Vivian, sees magic and fantasy where there are mundanities.”

"It gave me a huge confidence boost and sent me back to the second novel with a spring in my step..."

In one scene, Vivian searches for a holy well, only to find a disused public toilet. In another — a nod to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz — Vivian visits Dublin’s Yellow Road and Emerald Street in the hopes of finding the Yellowbrick Road and the Emerald City and finding her way home. That home is the one Vivian grew up believing in, her parents having told her she was left to them “by fairies.”

Lally says she relates to Vivian — not only in that Vivian can be a social misfit looking for ways to connect with others, but in her whimsical way of experiencing the world as well. “I came up with the character while I was unemployed and wandering around Dublin hunting for jobs,” Lally says, describing her experience with employment during the 2011 recession in Ireland. “I wanted to write a character who walked the city and was also furiously seeking something. Dublin felt like a grim, closed-off place to me, lacking in opportunity. I deliberately wanted Vivian to look at the city in a different way, seeing magic and potential in street-signs and graffiti and hidden doors in walls. There are parts of Vivian in me, such as her bewilderment at why people all dress the same way or decorate their homes in the same way.”

"I deliberately wanted Vivian to look at the city in a different way, seeing magic and potential in street-signs and graffiti and hidden doors in walls."

Another way the writer connects with her character is through their shared love of lists. Throughout Eggshells, Vivian makes lists of words she finds beautiful — words that are otherwise unnoticed by most people, just going about their daily business. “I do love a good list! I’m afraid I inflicted my obsession with lists onto Vivian,” says Lally. “To me, they read like poetry. I love the idea of collecting beautiful words just for the sake of it, or the gorgeous names of plants in the Botanical Gardens, or the beautiful names of creatures in the Natural History Museum, which Vivian does. I think Vivian uses lists to try to control or impose a certain order on the world. Also, possibly to find an identity – she makes a list of her favorite things, maybe in an attempt to find out more about herself.”

Photo by Eoin Rafferty

Still, despite the lovable quirks (and sure, some less lovable — Vivian isn’t great with the personal hygiene) many of Lally’s readers seem split on whether or not Vivian is mentally ill, or just a one-of-a-kind young woman, dancing to the beat of her own drum and disinterested in changing who she is in order to conform.

“I honestly don’t know which is the correct answer,” says Lally, when I ask her about this. “I wrote Vivian as an eccentric character who views the world differently, but as you say, many readers have questioned what mental illness she has.”

For her part, Lally says she didn’t plan on writing a character suffering from mental illness, nor did she do the research involved in creating such a character. “I just wrote a character with no filter on what she says and I gave her free rein to be as she is,” the writer says. “I don’t mind what readers think, but I’d hate to think Vivian’s quirks were being put into a narrow definition and judged accordingly. I’m drawn to people in real life who don’t conform and who act true to themselves, and I would love to live in a world in which people had more freedom to say what they really thought. Vivian, for all her oddness, has quite a strong sense of her beliefs and thoughts and I liked that — despite outside pressures she maintains her own personal take on reality.”